Monday, April 5, 2010

I feel the earth move under my feet ...

Well, that was interesting.

As I sat on my bed, editing a blog entry yesterday afternoon, the mattress suddenly began to rock. It was unsettlingly like trying to type on a waterbed, and at first I thought some object had fallen on the mattress to make it shake. But no, all my books were in place on the shelf, and there was no previously undiscovered coyote bouncing on my bed with all four paws. It was an earthquake.

Oh, yeah. We get those. I forgot.

It’s easy to sound blasé about earthquakes when you’re not in the middle of one. That is to say, I sound calm now, but at the time I quite calmly closed my laptop, unplugged it, scooped it up and lunged for the doorway just in case. The world kept swaying gently like a boat riding at anchor, making the house creak and setting small objects to jingling in the cabinets, but that was it. I was annoyed. If I was going to get off my keister for an earthquake, I expected better than this. The only thing that fell off the shelves was a stuffed koala. Even the pocket paperbacks were still in place. What a rip-off!

I sat down in the doorway while the world rolled on (it was a long quake, as they go—felt like nearly a minute), and I thought about earthquakes. There are earthquakes every day in California, but we don’t notice most of them. Even the ones we do feel are mostly minor. I remember a quake shaking the classroom as I was taking an algebra test in eighth grade. Everything vibrated, and the classroom door rattled loudly in its frame … but that was it. Nothing fell, no one tripped or screamed. The students just lifted their heads and stared balefully at that noisy door, mentally cursing it for breaking their concentration.

After several seconds of shaking and glaring, the teacher sighed and said, “Okay. Duck and cover.” We reluctantly put down our pencils and crawled under our desks—our chairs, actually, since the school had brilliantly invested in new desks that were little more than tiny flip boards bolted to the armrests of chairs. Imagine a room full of eighth-graders trying to curl up under flimsy plastic chairs, holding onto a chair leg with one hand and covering the back of the neck with the other. Now imagine that doing them any good whatsoever if the ceiling were to fall in.

When the shaking stopped, we trooped outside to the parking lot in case, by some miracle, the school collapsed from a wimpy two-point earthquake centered five miles away. The tests were graded based on what we had done before the quake, so everyone’s grades were a bit low that quarter. Stupid plate tectonics.

But what most people forget about earthquakes—I assume because they want to forget—is that heartstopping second right after you realize the earth is moving. You don’t know how bad it’s going to be—it might be merely annoying, or it might drop the roof on your head. And there’s nothing you can do about it either way. When I was a kid, we were taught to stand in doorways and brace ourselves, supposedly because the doorway is the strongest point in the average room, but that measure is now considered important only if you live in an unreinforced adobe building, which is quite rare. Most people I know still dive for the doorway when the earth begins to move, though, because it’s all they know to do and it’s easier than dealing with the fact that you can’t do jack. Even running outside won’t help; there are too many trees, telephone poles, power lines, and other tall objects that might fall on you. You can do a little bit of preparation—moving heavy and breakable objects to lower shelves, making sure your quake retrofitting is up to snuff—but fundamentally, an earthquake is about as far out of your control as it’s possible to get. There’s no time to evacuate or climb into the storm cellar; the fire department won’t show up to stop it; you’re on your own, with seconds at best to make life-and-death decisions.

Naturally, this appeals to the writer in me.

I joke that earthquakes are the ultimate instant-gratification natural disaster—no wussy storm warning, no long buildup, just massive property damage and then all you have to do is find a broom to sweep up the pieces. They’re almost too good as a plot device, though; any story that properly conveys the suddenness and surprise of an earthquake runs the risk of having the quake dismissed as a deus ex machina. All of a sudden the ground began to shake and the death ray toppled over onto the villain? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on! And yet any story that features a long, dramatic buildup to an earthquake feels false to anyone who’s experienced one, because there is no such buildup. Properly speaking, earthquake movies shouldn’t even be advertised as earthquake movies—it spoils the shock of a real earthquake.

Instant-gratification disasters are, of course, a factor in Masks. The climax of the story features a very fast-moving emergency—one that combines earthquake-speed decision-making and the paralyzing problem of L.A. traffic at rush hour. Innocent people are going to be vaporized in ten seconds, ten miles away, and no terrestrial transportation can get you there to save your loved ones; what do you do? It’s what “always run toward the screaming” is about—that first reaction, the instinctive response that reveals character and, in many ways, makes a hero.

I’ve probably been awake for a dozen noticeable earthquakes in my life—not counting little wimpy ones where nobody did anything of note. It’s always fascinating to see what people do. I’ve seen folks run around screaming. I’ve seen people glare at the symptoms of the quake for interrupting them. I’ve seen people panic, and people suddenly snap into an icy calm. My personal favorite response was four people simultaneously lunging for the room where the baby was sleeping. (The baby didn’t wake up until four frantic adults burst in on her.)

Rae has the advantage of growing up in earthquake country. She knows what to do, as much as anything can be done. I like to think she’s hardwired to go for the baby when the earth begins to move. Trevor has a more general emergency response, but it’s just as strong. And it’s always fun to throw characters into a surprise disaster and see who will run toward the screaming.

1 comment:

  1. (I am not from an earthquake prone place)

    My first quake I was asleep and I remember dreaming that someone was shaking the bed. Then I remembered the bed was against two walls. And I was in a hotel room. Eleven stories up. I looked out the window to see the streetlights swaying and thought to myself "welcome to Japan"

    I also remember one particular earthquake in California. It did jingle me enough to make me look up from my book. It did not jingle me enough to make me want to get out of my papasan chair. And the "other" people were yelling at me to get up and come stand in the doorway - one of them even yanked me by the arm to go stand in the doorway. With this blog entry I feel justified that I didn't think being in the doorway made any difference.